October 16, 2005

Koizumi visits war shrine, China and S.Korea protest

By Linda Sieg and George Nishiyama

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi
paid homage on Monday at a Tokyo shrine for war dead that is
seen by critics as a symbol of Japan's militaristic past,
drawing swift and angry protests from China and South Korea.

Japan's relations with its neighbors have already chilled
because of Koizumi's annual visits to Yasukuni shrine, where
war criminals convicted by an Allied tribunal are honored along
with the nation's 2.5 million war dead.

Koizumi -- clad in a dark suit rather than the traditional
Japanese garb he has worn on some past visits -- bowed, put his
hands together in prayer and stood silently in front of an
outer shrine for a moment before striding back to his car in
front of a crowd that had gathered in a drizzling rain.

He did not enter an inner shrine as he has in the past and
made no remarks. Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda told
reporters the visit was made in a private capacity.

Japanese media said the low key atmosphere appeared to be
an attempt to mute the expected backlash from China and South
Korea as well as domestic critics.

Chinese ambassador to Japan Wang Yi, however, called the
visit a "grave provocation to the Chinese people."

"The Chinese government is resolutely opposed to visits to
the Yasukuni shrine by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi at any
time, in any form," Xinhua news agency quoted Wang as saying.

Japan's embassy in Beijing advised Japanese nationals to
stay away from areas that could be potential flash points for
anti-Japan demonstrations, such as those in April.

South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon summoned Japanese
ambassador Shotaro Oshima to complain. "We strongly protest the
visit to Yasukuni shrine despite our request and strongly urge
that it is not repeated," Ban said in Seoul.

Japanese business executives have been worried that the
strain in diplomatic ties will hurt burgeoning economic
relations between China and Japan especially.

Japan and China have annual trade of about $212 billion,
and Japanese exports to China account for some 13 percent of
Japan's global exports, second only to 22 percent to the United

Tokyo stock market investors, recalling a slide in share
prices after anti-Japanese protests in China in April, were
wary of the possible fallout from Koizumi's visit to the


Koizumi has repeatedly said he visits the Shinto shrine to
pray for peace and honor the dead, not to glorify militarism.

He has also avoided going to the shrine on August 15, the
anniversary of Japan's 1945 surrender that ended World War Two
and an emotive date in the region.

But his visits on other occasions have nonetheless
infuriated China and other countries.

"It's fine for the prime minister to stick to his beliefs,
but given his status as the Japanese leader he should think
about relations between countries and the people's feelings,"
said Choi Young-soo, 44, a South Korean on a sightseeing trip
to the shrine. "He should not stir up ill feelings."

Bitter memories of Japan's 1910-1945 colonization run deep
in North and South Korea, while China has not forgotten Tokyo's
invasion and occupation before and during World War Two.

Relations between China and Japan hit their lowest level in
decades in April when thousands of Chinese took to the streets
in sometimes violent anti-Japan protests.

After the April protests, Tokyo's Nikkei share average slid
below the 11,000 mark for the first time this year.

The benchmark, which has since recovered, was up slightly
in afternoon trade on Monday at 13,454.66.

Despite a huge victory for Koizumi's ruling Liberal
Democratic Party in a general election last month, Japan's
public is divided over the Yasukuni visits.

Courts have given conflicting rulings on whether they
violate the constitutional separation of religion and state.

Takenori Kanzaki, the leader of LDP coalition partner New
Komeito -- a Buddhist-backed party -- told reporters Koizumi's
visit was extremely regrettable, Kyodo news agency reported.

But Hiroki Kanematsu, a 20-year-old law student who went to
Yasukuni to watch Koizumi, said he felt Koizumi should not halt
his visits "just because of what China says."

Another student, Ai Yamaguchi, took a different view.

"It would be fine for him to go as an individual, but he is
the prime minister, so it is not good," she said.

"We should seek good ties with China and South Korea
because they are our close neighbors."

Talks between China and Japan aimed at resolving a separate
row over rights to natural gas resources in the East China Sea
have made little progress, and another round has been expected
later this month.

(Additional reporting by Teruaki Ueno in Tokyo and Jack Kim
in Seoul)